Mr. President, Keep the Airwaves Free
As a former law professor, surely you understand the Bill of Rights
Dear President Obama:
I have a straightforward question, which I hope you will answer in a straightforward way: Is it your intention to censor talk radio through a variety of contrivances, such as "local content," "diversity of ownership," and "public interest" rules -- all of which are designed to appeal to populist sentiments but, as you know, are the death knell of talk radio and the AM band?
You have singled me out directly, admonishing members of Congress not to listen to my show. Bill Clinton has since chimed in, complaining about the lack of balance on radio. And a number of members of your party, in and out of Congress, are forming a chorus of advocates for government control over radio content. This is both chilling and ominous.
As a former president of the Harvard Law Review and a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, you are more familiar than most with the purpose of the Bill of Rights: to protect the citizen from the possible excesses of the federal government. The First Amendment says, in part, that "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." The government is explicitly prohibited from playing a role in refereeing among those who speak or seek to speak. We are, after all, dealing with political speech -- which, as the Framers understood, cannot be left to the government to police.
When I began my national talk show in 1988, no one, including radio industry professionals, thought my syndication would work. There were only about 125 radio stations programming talk. And there were numerous news articles and opinion pieces predicting the fast death of the AM band, which was hemorrhaging audience and revenue to the FM band. Some blamed the lower-fidelity AM signals. But the big issue was broadcast content. It is no accident that the AM band was dying under the so-called Fairness Doctrine, which choked robust debate about important issues because of its onerous attempts at rationing the content of speech.
After the Federal Communications Commission abandoned the Fairness Doctrine in the mid-1980s, Congress passed legislation to reinstitute it. When President Reagan vetoed it, he declared that "This doctrine . . . requires Federal officials to supervise the editorial practices of broadcasters in an effort to ensure that they provide coverage of controversial issues and a reasonable opportunity for the airing of contrasting viewpoints of those issues. This type of content-based regulation by the Federal Government is . . . antagonistic to the freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment. . . . History has shown that the dangers of an overly timid or biased press cannot be averted through bureaucratic regulation, but only through the freedom and competition that the First Amendment sought to guarantee."
Today the number of radio stations programming talk is well over 2,000. In fact, there are thousands of stations that air tens of thousands of programs covering virtually every conceivable topic and in various languages. The explosion of talk radio has created legions of jobs and billions in economic value. Not bad for an industry that only 20 years ago was moribund. Content, content, content, Mr. President, is the reason for the huge turnaround of the past 20 years, not "funding" or "big money," as Mr. Clinton stated. And not only has the AM band been revitalized, but there is competition from other venues, such as Internet and satellite broadcasting. It is not an exaggeration to say that today, more than ever, anyone with a microphone and a computer can broadcast their views. And thousands do.
Mr. President, we both know that this new effort at regulating speech is not about diversity but conformity. It should be rejected. You've said you're against reinstating the Fairness Doctrine, but you've not made it clear where you stand on possible regulatory efforts to impose so-called local content, diversity-of-ownership, and public-interest rules that your FCC could issue.
I do not favor content-based regulation of National Public Radio, newspapers, or broadcast or cable TV networks. I would encourage you not to allow your office to be misused to advance a political vendetta against certain broadcasters whose opinions are not shared by many in your party and ideologically liberal groups such as Acorn, the Center for American Progress, and MoveOn.org. There is no groundswell of support behind this movement. Indeed, there is a groundswell against it.
The fact that the federal government issues broadcast licenses, the original purpose of which was to regulate radio signals, ought not become an excuse to destroy one of the most accessible and popular marketplaces of expression. The AM broadcast spectrum cannot honestly be considered a "scarce" resource. So as the temporary custodian of your office, you should agree that the Constitution is more important than scoring transient political victories, even when couched in the language of public interest.
We in talk radio await your answer. What will it be? Government-imposed censorship disguised as "fairness" and "balance"? Or will the arena of ideas remain a free market?
Mr. Limbaugh is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host.
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